The biggest story through the Philadelphia 76ers’ practices in Orlando has been their new starting lineup. Shake Milton starting at point guard with Ben Simmons shifting to power forward (sending Al Horford to the bench as a result) was the best adjustment the Sixers could make to add more space and complementary playmaking to the starting unit. The only concern for fans was whether Brett Brown would stick with it. But, surely enough, the Sixers’ first scrimmage game rolled around and the new starting five made its first appearance.
It was only a meaningless game against the Memphis Grizzlies, but as the Sixers held on to win 90-83 after building up a 29-point lead with a strong first half, Simmons’ debut in his new role went about as well as anyone could have expected. He finished with 9 points (4-of-9 shooting), 7 rebounds, 9 assists to 1 turnover, and 3 steals in just under 23 minutes.
Before getting into the rest of his game, it’s worth noting that Simmons’ passing was terrific. This no-look alley-oop to Tobias Harris in transition in particular could not have been thrown any better.
Absolutely perfectly placed no-look alley-oop from Ben Simmons here pic.twitter.com/1fiE23Z5Ck— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) July 24, 2020
Then, of course, there’s the number from Simmons’ stat line that pops the most: he shot 1-of-2 from three-point range.
Brett Brown said at Thursday’s practice that there has been a “paradigm shift” in Simmons’ mindset to find space to take jumpers. According to Brown, Simmons had also taken more threes in one week in Orlando than he might have in half a season of practice beforehand. Footage of Simmons taking a couple of threes in practice only added to the intrigue. Even still, evidence of Simmons actually shooting in games was always going to be needed to prove that he’s more willing to take jumpers now.
It didn’t take long for Simmons to show a new approach.
He attempted (and missed) a corner three-pointer after three and a half minutes. Which, in fairness, is something we’ve seen before — he made two corner threes in separate games before the season was suspended. The far more noteworthy play is that Simmons followed this up with a second corner three in the third quarter. And this time, he made it.
Well, there it is. Ben Simmons takes and makes his second corner 3-pointer pic.twitter.com/Y0xn0DPtQh— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) July 24, 2020
“I get excited,” Brett Brown said after the game when discussing Simmons’ shooting. “And as I’ve said, it’s the paradigm shift, he doesn’t flinch. The sport told him ‘I’m open, nobody’s guarding me, shoot it,’ and he did. There wasn’t any hesitation on what’s next. What decision do I have to make now?”
Simmons probably won’t be taking many threes from above the arc. For one, he isn’t going to be set up for many looks as a trailer, as Brown wants his team to get the ball to Simmons every time an opponent misses so he can push the ball in transition. The corners will be particularly important (and a bit easier) for Simmons in these initial stages of him shooting. It cuts down his time in the dunker’s spot, and someone who’s willing to shoot a little at least commands the attention of defenders more than a player who won’t even try. Plus, if Joel Embiid is going to be used more as a roller and pick-and-pop option above the arc as well, then Simmons clearing out the way and serving as an outlet in the corner for other ball handlers will help. Him spacing out to the corners and taking two threes without hesitating in this game, and with defenders fairly close by his standards, is an encouraging sign for the Sixers.
“We’ve been practicing, we’ve been working to find that corner [three],” Simmons explained after the game. “I’m very comfortable over there and shooting those shots, so I’m glad my teammates found me.”
“I’m taking what [opponents] give me,” Simmons added when talking about his shooting mindset. “I’ve been working on the three-ball, shooting it, so I’ve been feeling comfortable. I’m still getting to the rim, I’m still going to attack and find my guys. You saw, I think I had 9 assists. So, still just trying to play my game and just trying to evolve and be a better player.”
Besides stretching out to the corners, another key part of Simmons’ altered play was how he operated from the elbows. With Milton present to handle the ball more and run some extra pick-and-rolls/pops (which he did well), Simmons had plenty of possessions where he set up at the elbows. He often faced up then went to work, either driving into the lane or firing the ball out to teammates. As effective as he can be with duck-ins and short post-ups under the basket, facing up creates more opportunities for Simmons to utilize his speed and attack across the lane.
Take the two plays in the clip below. First, Simmons spins down the lane from the elbow, catches the defense’s attention as Harris also shifts inside, and finds Embiid in space popping out to the arc. In the second possession, Milton hits Simmons at the elbow and after seemingly cutting inside, which sends Jaren Jackson Jr under Simmons, Milton steps back outside for an open three:
With Simmons starting at the 4, the plan is to keep using him more at the elbows moving forward. He said after the game that he loves attacking from that area of the floor, and he’s been working on his footwork in these face-up situations.
“It’s just what we’re emphasizing right now,” Simmons added when I asked him about his increased usage at the elbows after the game. “I think we only ran one or two plays today, and we went to that motion, so we’re getting a lot of looks. I love having the ball at that elbow, where I’m able to create shots for my guys, get to the rim. There’s endless possibilities with what we’re doing right now, so I felt very comfortable.”
Obviously this is only one game. A scrimmage after four months off that doesn’t count for anything. It’s important to not overreact, as this is just the beginning for these new-look Sixers. But seeing as all Simmons had to do to get off on the right track was start at power forward, show that he’s fully healthy and explosive again, and start proving that he is more willing to shoot and play off ball, he delivered.
As Simmons and the Sixers look to shake up their style of play and get in form before the playoffs, they seem to have the right stylistic mindset to make some real improvements.
Now they just need to prove it’s here to stay.